For decades, the General Accounting Office has been known as the investigative arm of Congress. Its assessments of the performance of federal programs, ranging from defense weapons systems development to the procurement of canned peaches for the White House mess, have been taken as gospel and used by legislators to decide what programs to fund and which to cut. Its staff investigators are considered among the best in Washington.
So it came as something of a jolt recently when a panel of experts from the National Academy of Public Administration concluded that the GAO occasionally strays from the path of rigorous fact-gathering to advocate public policy changes, decisions that should be made by elected officials, not by congressional auditors.
One example cited was a report from 1988, after George Bush was elected president. The GAO took issue with his no-new-taxes pledge, saying real deficit reduction must be accompanied by new revenue generation. No matter that the conclusion was correct; Republicans protested that it was not the GAO's place to challenge a political promise. The Republicans have been keeping a close eye on the GAO ever since.
The agency used to seek comments from the individuals in charge of the programs under scrutiny. Those responses, positive and negative, were then issued with the report. Lately, the National Academy concluded, GAO often acquiesced to requests from members of Congress not to seek the comment, enabling lawmakers to blindside a public official with the GAO's findings during a public hearing. This violates the very basic standards of fairness for which the GAO was once and properly proud.
Most of the blame for GAO's drift must lie at the feet of the legislators who control the agency. GAO auditors don't go off on their own to examine programs and agencies. They look at specific matters on specific instructions from individual members of Congress. If GAO officials are at fault, it's for being too accommodating to Congress, for not declining to take on projects that go beyond the agency's mandate.
The work done by GAO is too important, and its integrity too vital, to risk further damage from even the appearance of partisanship or whim. Both Congress and agency officials need to reassess GAO's performance and clarify its mission, then take special care to guard what in Washington these days are rare and fragile commodities: credibility and public trust.